Top advisors learn about client communication and marketing. Now, you can too.

    What's the story you're telling clients and prospects about your firm and the value of the advisory services you deliver? Are you sure they're hearing what you think you're saying? Advisor Richie Lee thought so, until he did a mock prospect interview on camera in May and was stunned at the playback. "Most of us want to appear smart, but that's not really very meaningful to prospects. You have to come across in a way that demonstrates your relevancy and value to them," says Lee, an investment virtuoso who manages $1 billion for 200 clients at his Dallas-based firm, Lee Financial Advisors.
    Lee is part of a forward-looking consortium of 12 advisors from across the country, aptly titled Group 2020. Nine of the advisors, who manage between $450 million and $5 billion, locked themselves away for two days in early May in a conference room in the Atlanta Hilton. Their goal? To learn some hard but necessary truths about their marketing deficits-not only what they say, but how they say it, in writing, on Web sites and in person.
    Submitting to the glare of TV and peer scrutiny wasn't always easy, but it was a necessary next step for Group 2020 and much of the advisory industry, which has been marketing-poor for decades. In fact, more than 81% of fee-based advisors know they need marketing training and realize it is not even remotely one of their core competencies, Schwab Institutional reports.
    Schwab referred the Group 2020 advisors to their marketing trainers-Dan Sondhelm, vice president of strategic public relations at Virginia-based Sunstar, and Terry Booton, president of Advanced Marketing Instruction, Atlanta. But the advisors paid thousands of dollars out-of-pocket for their self-imposed seminar. "We know the success that fee-only advisors are having against wirehouse brokers, but basically when it comes to marketing to new clients, they're winging it," says Dave Welling, Schwab's vice president of strategic marketing programs. "That gets harder to do as they grow their firms, their assets and add staff."
    Sounds reasonable so far, right? Everyone needs to get on the same page. But there's one nagging question. The Group 2020 firms already have growth rates of between 15% and 40% annually. While marketing may be a do-or-die proposition at newer advisory shops, the advisors here admit they've done little if any marketing in years because, frankly, they haven't needed to.
    They get all of their new clients from referrals and have almost all the growth they can handle. Our simple query, then: Why spend money and valuable time in a two-day seminar learning to do something you seemingly don't need to do-marketing? "The answer is, I think fee-only planners are really weak at sales and marketing and it's going to create havoc with their strategic plans for the future," says Roy Ballentine, a Group 2020 member who manages $1.5 billion with partner Alice Finn. Their firm, Ballentine, Finn & Co., is headquartered jointly in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. "Many of us, and we're no exception, have a hard time differentiating ourselves, even though we do a great job as advisors."
    The goals for the seminar were fairly straightforward, if initially elusive, says Sondhelm. The desired effect, at the end of marketing boot camp, was for advisors to be able to:
    Clearly differentiate their practices from those of other advisors;
    Develop ten rules or tenets of their specific wealth-building process;
    Convey these messages in a clear, concise, jargon-free manner;
    Develop stories and statistics that illuminate their value;
    Control their answers, regardless of the question, so that they always return to their firm's message;
    Create a process for maximizing referrals; and
    Be proactive when creating and updating your Web site.
    Advisors who attended the two-day seminar admitted that they came away with a number of valuable lessons they wanted to implement at their firms.
    But it wasn't always pretty. The best way to illustrate how much these advisors were struggling with branding their messages or distinguishing themselves was as simple as asking them to go around the room and explain what they do.
    "What we were really looking for was their commercial," says Sondhelm. "We wanted to know: What is your unique story? What's the value proposition of your business and how do you communicate it in 20 seconds?
    "What we saw is that these folks have built stellar businesses, they're the elite of the elite, but bragging is difficult for them. So one of our top goals was to help them figure out what makes them different, what makes them stand out," Sondhelm says.
    What could be easier for a group of veteran planners than explaining what they do? "As the third person around the table, I pointed to the two folks who went before me and said, 'We do what they do,'" laughs Cheryl Holland, who manages $450 million at the firm she helms: The Abacus Planning Group in Columbia, S.C.
    "When you have the same words repeated again and again, you realize: We don't have an elevator speech here. As Dan went around the room, we all said, 'We do comprehensive financial planning, with traditional and alternative investments, etc., etc. ...' We realized right away we were all saying the same thing. That was a wake-up call," says Holland, who plans to double her assets in the next several years. "I can't imagine going from $500 million to $1 billion without a systematized process for marketing and referrals," the veteran advisor says.
    Members of Group 2020, and a growing number of advisors, realize that without standardized marketing and communication practices they run the risk of staff and client turnover, not to mention failed strategic planning and missed opportunities. "I'm now responsible for 50 employees," Ballentine says. "Back when we were ten employees, it took ten clients to get the kind of growth we wanted. I now need to create growth at a level and pace that is so much more profound. And I have to be able to integrate and synchronize that growth with every other facet of my firm. It's complicated.
    "Beyond that, we now have eight senior client advisors. We have to systematize the marketing process so our clients and the folks we meet in the elevator all get the same stories. Right now, I can't really say that's the case," Ballentine admits.
    So along with the constant peer review and the feedback from two marketing experts, the TV camera provided what many advisors say was a profound experience. What were the glaring weaknesses? The propensity to pontificate, to make speeches and to use jargon that goes right over clients' heads without ever conveying the great things your firm does.
    "That's why we start the day in front of the TV camera and go back to it so often," Sondhelm says. "I tell them: This will be the most difficult interview you'll ever have to do. It only gets easier from here."
    The advisors who sat in front of the unblinking camera's eye were asked: Tell us about your company and your philosophy. And oh, by the way, the market went down today. Should I be concerned? Simple questions, right? The point isn't really to create a slick commercial, says Sondhelm, but rather to learn to control your responses in a way that underscores the strengths of your firm.
    If being interviewed in front of a camera is difficult, watching yourself after the fact can be excruciating. "It's like the lights go on, and bang, you're on another planet," Lee says.
    "In round one of the interviews, advisors tell. They sound smart and intelligent," Sondhelm says. "But I want to get them to sell. They have to raise the bar. So we role-play continuously. We want them to be able to control any interview, while making the prospect or reporter feel comfortable. They learn to answer within the framework of selling your firm and play to the customer's wants."
    One way to make your answer more effective? Use a story and statistics, Sondhelm says.
    According to Ballentine, "Before this coaching, if you asked us what's unique about our investment management, I might have said, 'We scour the planet looking for investments for clients.' Now I'd say, 'Last year, we looked at 300 private equity deals and selected only four we thought were good enough for our clients."
    Instead of saying 'We do multigenerational planning," Sondhelm suggests, find a story and relevant statistics. For instance, tell clients that you work with 95% of your clients' children to ensure that clients' wishes for heirs and their charitable goals are carried out in a meaningful, respectful way. Be specific. Talk about, for instance, how you set up a family foundation for some clients and how their kids now run it, funneling significant donations to charities that cater to 'X.' Be specific with story development for each of the areas you specialize in, Sondhelm says. Then institutionalize the stories so that all the members of your firm are trained to answer questions and market the firm's benefits in the same way. The stories should also be used to cross-pollinate written client communications, newsletters and Web sites.
    That brand of cohesive and comprehensive marketing is critically important to Group 2020 member Janet Briaud, who plans to grow her firm exponentially when her 27-year-old daughter Natalie Pine joins the firm from the London-based hedge fund where she now does investment analysis. Currently, Briaud manages $450 million for 230 clients at Briaud Financial Planning in Bryan, Texas, and despite a 15% growth rate, has actually tried to slow growth. But that's changing quickly. "Now we plan to expand the business and take it to multiple locations, so it's critical to build the branding and the whole look and feel of our business."
    One area she knows needs revamping is her Web site ( During the marketing training, peers reviewed each other's Web sites and Briaud's site elicited less-than-positive feedback. "Our look is outdated, our story isn't told very well and we haven't posted any of the updated press we've gotten. While we've been voted top advisors in Worth and Medical Economics, the stories aren't even up," Briaud says. "We know we have to be much more proactive and professional about the story we tell going forward if we hope to grow."
    One thing that surprised the group, and even Sondhelm, was the advisors' use of jargon. "Take, for example, a phrase as simple as 'high net worth,'" he says. "I asked everyone to write down their definition. One advisor said it's $2 million to $10 million. Another said it's $30 million."
Other jargon that plagued the advisors: financial planning, wealth management and estate planning. "Does the customer really know what these terms mean?" asks Sondhelm. "The problem with buzzwords is they can be meaningless and the clients won't tell you. If you define your value so that you and clients are on the same page, you'll connect with them," he adds.
    Case in point about the importance of message development? Cheryl Holland credits what she learned at the seminar with helping her firm make it onto the short list to manage a $30 million firefighters' pension.
    "We developed our messages ahead of time. So when we interviewed by phone, we figured out immediately that the group had some hot buttons," Holland says.
    The firefighters had been in a long-term traditional brokerage relationship and were very angry about hidden fees, she says. They also wanted education for the 7,900 firefighters in the plan, an area they felt was sorely missing in their previous relationship. As luck would have it, two of Holland's carefully developed messages aligned perfectly. "We told them we specialize in low-cost, tax-efficient investing and educating and empowering investors. We continuously brought the message back to these points," says Holland, who developed the messages with clients in mind.
    The upshot? Holland felt in control. "Most of us haven't had to market. But I have been totally amazed at what we can do to get the kind of clients we want with just a little bit of effort. We can supercharge our firm."